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Columbia County Observer

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County Jail: Average Daily Population Exaggerated, Misinformation, Over Budget on the Drawing Board

         The jail capacity is 254 and has been declining over the past five years.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – For months the Columbia County 5, along with Sheriff Mark Hunter and his staff, has been trying to convince the County's taxpayers that the jail is "overcrowded" and "just plain wore out." Contrary to Commissioners Murphy and Williams and Sheriff Hunter, the jail population has been declining and the proposed new jail is already millions over budget before it is off the drawing board.

Background: It's "wore out"

Jail Administrator Captain Chris Douglas answers questions at the Fairgrounds.

On July 23, 2018, during the County 5 "We need a new jail" dog and pony show held at the Fair Grounds, Sheriff Hunter had a last minute scheduling conflict, something which he is prone to have when things aren't going his way, leaving the jail's administrator, Captain Chris Douglas, to carry the freight.

Captain Douglas explained why the Sheriff is looking for a new jail: "The reason that we're lookin' at a new jail is the original design is a little obsolete to today's standards; it's inefficient in the way that it is set up; when it was built, it was up to standards then."

During one meeting of the County 5, the latest jail architect said the County jail, among other things, was out of standard by the time it was completed.

Capt. Douglas continued, "My feeling is it's wore out. I have a lot of years in this business. We've also had two separate engineering companies come in here and say the same thing."

Both of these "companies" were architectural firms that wanted to design the new jail: the design cost - $2 mil plus.

A resident asked, "I take it there was a report? Where is that report?"

Capt. Douglas explained it was a public record.

The resident continued, "The report that was done by the company that's designing the new one said, 'The old one's wore out?'"

Capt. Douglas responded, "Yes sir."

The resident concluded, "If I'm gonna' build you somethin' I'm gonna' dag-gone sure gonna' tell you, "It's wore out."

Capt. Douglas spoke about a renovation of the present jail, "My opinion is to have somebody come in and look at that jail to tell you if you're able to renovate it and what all your options are -- someone has to pay for it to get their opinion."

Captain Douglas mentioned that in order to renovate the jail, "It would have to be torn down."

A resident spoke out, "I never heard of renovating something by tearing it down."

The County 5 continues to fail to invite former County Manager Dale Williams or former Commissioner Jody DuPree, a contractor, to testify regarding what they found when they researched a renovation of the County jail in 2008-09.

Commissioner DePratter told the Observer, "I would like to hear what they have to say."

Without the County 5, or the boy hood friend of the Sheriff, Chairman Tim Murphy, inviting them to testify, there is nothing Mr. DePratter or the public can do.

Jail Capacity
A Series of Untruths by the Sheriff's Office

There were almost as many folks from the Sheriff's Office (back row) in Fort White as there were residents.

On July 31, the County Jail Brigade brought their traveling dog and pony show to Fort White, way in the south end of the county. While thousands of voters are registered in Ft. White, only twenty people showed up. It appeared that most, if not all were opposed to the increase in the sales tax, which after the County sleight of hand is filtered, is going to pay for the jail.

Recent figures show that the hike in the sales tax, if it passes, will make rural Columbia County one of the highest sales taxed counties in Florida.

Sheriff Hunter was out of town, again leaving Capt. Douglas to field questions.

Your reporter asked, "My understanding is that the capacity of the jail is 254 beds. I've yet to see a chart showing how many times in the last ten years, or recent time, that the jail has been at over capacity. Could you tell me why these charts aren't here? Is the jail at over capacity today?"

Captain Douglas replied, "I can't answer the question why the charts aren't here."

Capt. Douglas said he looks at capacity in different ways. He said, "The total number is confusing when you start breaking it down."

At a previous meeting Sheriff Hunter said the state has not written the jail up for being over crowded or being out of compliance with the law.

Commissioner Williams
Is he shouting "fire" in a movie theater?

Commissioner Williams explained what matters [as spoken]: "Here's what do matter. If the state come in and say, "Guys, you all gonna' build a jail, you gonna' build a jail. It's just that simple. That jail is not solely for inmates... We've got to build a jail... He [Sheriff Hunter] would not get up here and tell -- if he were standin' here tonight he would tell you I'm doin' what's right for the citizens of Columbia County... One female get raped in that jail or one juvenile get raped in that jail, they'll own this county."

Commissioner Williams continued, "Most of the people that he [Sheriff Hunter] have in that jail have not been convicted of a crime yet."

This is not true. Through the first five months of 2018 the total pretrial population of the jail was at 51%, just over half the jail population. This rate has been steadily declining since 2014, when the pretrial rate was 64.9%

A resident complained about not being provided with the monthly reports.

Capt. Douglas answers questions as County Manager Ben Scott looks on.

Capt. Douglas explained the jail overcrowding:  "The overcrowding and the numbers are a little bit misleading. I've been the Jail Administrator for the last two years; a little over two years. And I've had five or six occasions where we have went way over the 254 number; we've gotten up around 265, 270."

He continued, "Looking back over history the numbers have popped up over 300, up over around 330."

"We try to keep our number in check by working through the court system and with the judges, and the state attorney's office on the number people that are sentenced to the jail. We try to keep those numbers down so that it does not affect the crowding issue. I report my numbers each month to Tallahassee. And Tallahassee looks at those numbers and the Department of Corrections gets control over those numbers to make sure we are not overcrowding. I'm working with the courts to help manage that; to keep it under control."

Former Jail Administrator Joe Lucas
Pulling numbers out of the air

Officer Joe Lucas spoke up, "Before Capt. Douglas took over the jail, I was the jail administrator. We averaged 284 for 2015; 2016 was 312."

Officer Lucas' numbers are not accurate.

The jail roof has been a rallying call for the Sheriff in his quest for a new jail, where every chance he gets he complains about the roof. Commissioner Williams and Commissioner Murphy said the jail roof was replaced about ten years ago.

The County could not back up the commissioners' statements. Records show that the final roof invoice was in September1997. O'Neal roofing installed a 2 ply Simplast roof system with a 20 year warrantee. The roof lasted its useful life.

Captain Douglas concluded, "Building a new jail is a necessary evil. We have to have a place where we can safely put the criminals that gets arrested in this County."


The population of the jail has been declining. There is room in the County Jail. While clearly there are areas of the jail that need to be renovated, it is old. A person doesn't build a new house because it needs a new roof and a new kitchen and bathroom.

Some members of the County 5 and the Sheriff have been spreading misinformation.

According to Commissioner Rusty DePratter, the jail is already millions over budget. We have examined his figures and they appear to be accurate.

The jail has not left the drawing board. There is still time for the County's godfathers to come to their senses for the benefit of all the residents of Columbia County.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On August 28, 2018, a Lake City resident wrote:

I had no idea this site existed. I'm glad it does! I just can't bring myself to buy the Lake City Reporter (short of random issues that I want to keep for memorabilia), and I'm definitely not going to subscribe for online access. I'm not a fan of the way they report things. Anyway, thank you!

PS. If you could answer this ... I'm going to vote in the primary today. I was, at first, in favor of the 1% sales tax increase - for roads and bridges. I then read elsewhere that they may be using it to build a new jail - this is something I'm not in favor of. Do you have any information on this?

I'm sorry to have caught you at a bad time. Thank you! The more digging I did, the more it had a bad smell to it. I will be voting no.

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